Innovation in the Martian Classroom

“The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.”  

― Robert Greene, Mastery

Innovation is a crucial component in the Martian Classroom. Teachers serve as facilitators as students discover, predict, invent, and iterate. The lines of subject areas blur as students discover the principles that mesh to form larger concepts. Mastery learning is emphasized, but not at the sacrifice of the freedom to explore new thought processes and the "What Ifs," knowing that unsuccessful attempts are part of the learning process, and frequently lead to the next great idea. Students are the architects of their own learning, with the guidance of the educator.

Questions lead to innovation. How did everyday items come about in the first place? Who came up with that all-important dark substance that we drink each morning… and the stand-alone equipment to start our day? Or why are tennis balls fuzzy? Did they initially start out that way? Why does the school day start at 7:30 and the rest of the day is filled with odd numbers as start and finish times?

Most tend to think of science as a series of brilliant thoughts punctuated by bolt-out-of- the-blue discoveries. Think Newton under the gravity-prone apple tree. Or Archimedes plunging into his over-full bathtub. Never mind that someone had to invent that tub in the first place, along with the means of filling it with water for his body to displace. Who created the Hadron Collider, that massive structure in Switzerland that smashes atoms for science? The obvious (and mostly wrong) answer is scientists.

Photo by Michael Mroczek on Unsplash

Much of the sophisticated equipment used in science requires a complex partnership between scientists and engineers. When it comes to space, an engineers’ role seems even more profound. Not only do they lead the invention of the tools of science itself, but they also invent the tools that take the science tools into space. And those tools lead directly to useful, profitable inventions on the ground, often in unrelated industries.

One of the most important discoveries in the Martian Classroom is that ideas are built on other ideas. In other words, the discoveries of science depend on invention. The creations of engineers lead to discovery, which in turn helps lead to more creation. The ancient Greeks and Romans saw invention and discovery as much the same thing. In the Old Testament, the writer who calls himself Ecclesiastes—the one who said “there is nothing new under the Sun”—was stating a common belief of the ancients. All knowledge already exists, fully known by the gods, they said. It only awaits discovery by us mortals. Marvelous new devices— new kinds of ships, new weapons, improved metals—came from intelligent humans bringing together the means available to them. Imagine a clever Greek inventing an improved mining shovel. It lets workers dig further and deeper until they hit an undiscovered ore. The ore only seems new to them; it has been lying there for millions of years. Another Greek experiments with this metal, combining it with others, and invents a new, even better shovel. And so on.

Call it the invention-discovery cycle. A new tool leads to new knowledge, which leads to a new tool. Over time, the sequence speeds up, first with a burst of creativity in Asia; then with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age in Europe; leading up to the twentieth century and the invention of the airplane, transistor, and silicon chip. All of these inventions depended on the work of scientists. In turn, the scientists depended on increasingly sophisticated laboratory and field equipment. Throughout the 1900s, as the cycle spun faster and faster, the demand grew for ever more advanced equipment. While individuals or small groups could still invent and discover, the cycle came to depend on larger teams and bigger funding.

Photo by Oliver Pecker on Unsplash

Photo by Oliver Pecker on Unsplash

Not even the titans of industry could have gotten us to the Moon. That effort took the backing of a nation. To this day, the space program constitutes one of the greatest accelerants of the invention-discovery cycle. Besides advancing scientific knowledge, space’s contributions to the cycle offer more immediate, tangible benefits. Think of the cycle as a literal wheel of science and engineering: the faster it spins, the more it flings off information that other inventors can use. In the space program, this cycle works in a highly controlled, meticulously planned set of ventures.




1. Think of an item you have used today. What’s its history? Where did it come from, and what problem does it solve? Will it continue to solve that problem? Are there other ways to solve the same problem or ways to improve the item?

2. What does the invention-discovery cycle look like in your discipline?

3. What problems still need to be solved and what type of invention would do the trick?